Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A National Magazine Columnist Mansplains "Identifying Gender Inequality in Academia" as "Women Blaming Their Kids"

I made the mistake of checking Twitter before bed, and saw this article: "Academic women should stop blaming their kids" by Todd Pettigrew, a self-identified "progressive man".*

Apparently Dr. Pettigrew saw this other article in University Affairs, on gender disparities in the sciences, and felt the need to weigh in on the topic. Pettigrew notes that the study cited in the University Affairs article indicated that "women are underrepresented as biologists because they tend to be seeking jobs when they 'are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children.'" Dr. Adamo, the author of the study, went on to say "that sort of handicaps them."

Now, Dr. Adamo's study and the article describing it list a couple of main reasons for this:

  1. "Motherhood tends to occur at the same time that women biologists are facing extreme competition for faculty positions." Competition is stiff, with the number of new full-time faculty positions declining and the number of PhDs increasing, and this disproportionately impacts women with young families.
  2. "Funded maternity leaves are less generous for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows than they are for faculty members".
However, Dr. Pettigrew ignores Dr. Adamo's conclusions, instead stating
[A]s a married man I resent the claim that a husband or other life partner inevitably “handicaps” the career of a female academic. If your special someone doesn't think your career is important, then find someone who does. 
Because clearly the disadvantage stems from insufficient warm fuzzies from your "special someone", rather than a lean job market that is suffering a glut of candidates, some of whom are more likely to take time out or need accommodation to care for children than others. As a married woman, I don't think Dr. Pettigrew's resentment has much to do with the matter at hand.

So, Dr. Pettigrew is missing the point there. Which is not that surprising when one considers that he seems to think the academic career path is carved in stone:
"If [having children is] a choice, then women have the choice not to have children if they don’t like the implications for their careers."

The implications for the woman's career are timeless and unalterable, if I read Dr. Pettigrew correctly. There's no changing the career path, so if you don't like it, don't have kids. He nods briefly at the fact that "biological realities" put extra strain on women in academia but then moves on, leaving the unspoken suggestion that both fathers and mothers of small children have broadly the same experiences in the academic world - and if they don't, well then: that's on the women for not having understood what they were getting into.

This utterly ignores the fact that it still falls overwhelmingly to women to manage the home, even when they work outside it, that working mothers still bear the brunt of child care responsibilities (in a world with 3-year daycare wait lists, and little to no public money spent on child care, where the workday is 2.5 or 3 hours longer than the school day, not counting commute time) ... and that prospective employers can't say much about these factors, but they know they're there, and they consider them in their hiring and advancement decisions.

So, what's the solution? Dr. Adamo does not, as Dr. Pettigrew accuses, "blame kids". She suggests a two-pronged approach, both encouraging a more family friendly or flexible work environment and promoting an economic remedy: that universities restrict the number of students they admit to science programs, as in the medical school model, thus reducing the candidate surplus and making the competition a little less cutthroat. Of the two remedies, she identifies the economic one as the more effective.

Dr. Pettigrew, however, sidesteps this entirely and instead wanders off to take nose-wrinkling issue with the idea that a child can be an intervening event in a student's life, in the same way that an illness in the family can. He says:
By the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms around pregnancy. Forgive me, then, but the birth of a child does not intervene.  If you choose to have a baby while a graduate student, that’s your choice. When I was a graduate student, my partner and I discussed it seriously and decided against it. No child intervened. 
Um, good for you? I honestly can't tell whether he's assuming that accidental pregnancies while using birth control don't happen (they do - all forms of birth control have a failure rate, even if it's low), or whether he's saying that if you choose to have protected sex but accidentally become pregnant, the choice you consequently face is comparable to the one he and his grad school partner did (it's not). Either way, he's ignoring the complicated reality that many women face when trying to square their academic ability and ambition with their biological, social, and familial needs, responsibilities, and circumstances. Women in graduate studies, like women everywhere, get pregnant in all kinds of contexts. Choice, accident, and sexual assault may all result in pregnancy, and the consequences both personal and professional continue to disproportionately disadvantage women.

The University Affairs article is a discussion about that disproportionate disadvantage. In it, the author points out that the study of medicine is in far better shape than the study of biology when it comes to assisting women in balancing family and career, and identifies concrete ways by which this inequality can be addressed in the sciences.

Dr. Pettigrew's response, as a childless male academic, is to ignore the study conclusions clearly set out in black and white before him, and instead wave his hands vaguely and condescendingly in the direction of "choice" while deriding women academics for "blaming their kids".

They're not blaming the kids, Dr. Pettigrew. They're blaming you, and others like you, who buy into this notion that women make a choice to cobble their academic career when they reproduce. When you do that, you're less likely to give those women the same career opportunities men get - regardless of parental status - because you already see them as having compromised their professional goals. They don't get a fair shake because of the institutional bias that you are perpetuating.

That's what the problem is, and that's where the blame is directed.

There. Now I'm going to go to bed, an hour later than planned, so that tomorrow morning I can get up with my kids (whom I don't blame at all), and hand them over to their nanny before I go off and use that law degree I got back when they were preschoolers. Talk about choices.

*Being called "progressive", like being called "easygoing", carries little weight when the moniker is self-applied.